Menu Home

Catholic Education at Grand Ronde Reservation

The Federal government’s role regarding Indian people was to figure out what to do with them. Tribes were in the way of American expansion and, removal of the tribes to reservations was not enough, because as reservations increased in numbers, the amounts owed the tribes, collectively, increased. Because of this, the Federal government began to institute policies that would cause the eventual elimination of Native people, because once they were no longer culturally “Natives” they would no longer need federal funds to support them. This policy became called “civilizing Indians.” It was thought that before the Indians could become citizens, they had to be civilized first. It was inconceivable that savage Indians, thought of by many as not quite human, the key characteristics of being human in the 19th century being that they needed to be Christian, white and from a western tradition. These were all characteristics that the Indians did not have yet it was thought that they could be taught these things. Education could teach them the western tradition, that churches could convert them to Christianity, and that agriculture could turn them into farmers, and therefore productive members of society. These three pillars of the assimilation process for the tribes was first inspired by and practiced by missionaries of various churches, the most prominent being the Catholic church for the tribes who came to Grand Ronde.

As I have shown in other essays, the Catholic Church was one of the most prominent early missionary organizations in Oregon, with the first church began at St. Paul and the most prominent missionary being F. N. Blanchet in Oregon in 1838. In 1841 Blanchet was among the Chinookan tribes of the middle Columbia, taking stock of the number of converts as he made good attempts to visit every plank house he could in the villages at Clackamas, Willamette Falls, and the Cascades, as well as his visit to Fort Vancouver. He led the attempts to convert the Chinookan chiefs to Catholicism and confronted the Methodist missionaries in their efforts to convert the Natives. Blanchet’s major tool was the Catholic Ladder a visual depiction of the way that people could gain heaven, and his use of the Chinook Jargon languages to speak with them personally.

In the Willamette Valley, first at Mission bottoms, then at what is now Salem, Jason Lee a Methodist minister-settler in the 1830s and 1840s, gathered up apparent “wandering” Kalapuya Indians and brought them to his settlement on the banks of the Willamette River. There, Lee began to educate them and forced them into working for him on his farmstead. Lee eventually established the Indian Agricultural Training School at Chemeketa, on the site of what is now, downtown Salem, Willamette University and the State Capitol.

The Catholic and Methodist missions established schools and successful examples of conversion of Natives to Christianity. Their example was converted to Federal Indian policy in the form of Assimilation policy. Assimilation became for the Federal Government an answer to a burgeoning problem, that of how to continue supporting tribes through treaties that guaranteed them land, funding, and services, in some cases in perpetuity.

When the tribes were removed to Grand Ronde Reservation in 1856, most of them, especially those from the north, were somewhat familiar with the Catholic missionaries. Many individuals were already converted, and many Native women had married French-Canadian fur traders, themselves mostly Catholic or of the closely related Anglican Church. Records from the Catholic Church Archives show conversions, Baptisms, and Marriages for peoples from Grand Ronde at Fort Vancouver, St. Paul, Salem, and Grand Ronde from the earliest days of the reservation and before.

(Some people have asked, why would tribes convert? Tribal people were and are in many ways opportunistic in their allegiances. In the 19th century, in order to gain good trade relations with the wealthy newcomers (Whites) Native chiefs would marry their daughters to gain a familial relationship. When Blanchet visited the chiefs and engaged them in religious discussions, its highly likely that the chiefs saw this as an opportunity to get the rich and wealthy things that Blanchet brought with him, as well as possible future opportunities brought by maintaining those relationships. Tribal people are very accepting of other ways of religion and spirituality. Many tribal people will be even today members of two different spiritualities, they may be a member of a church and them practice Pow wow. Many folks may wonder at this and whether or not they are legitimately believers, that is for individuals to respond to, but it is not Native people who place firm divisions in their religious and spiritual belief, but instead people of other cultures who do this with their singular belief in their version of the Church over all other beliefs. For Native peoples it would normally be the descendants of those first converted would truly convert to Christianity, because as time went on and assimilation practices continued, less and less Native culture was being practiced and more and more White culture was being practiced.)

The treaty-reservation relationship with tribes became expensive for the United States because in forming treaties with the tribes for their lands the government had stated that they would care for the needs of the Indians, in some cases for 20 years and for other services, as long as they needed it. As the annual over-head mounted and the Indians failed to willingly convert to Christianity or the American lifestyle, the government began to plan in earnest for their assimilation.

In 1859 The federal government assigned to each reservation one Church so that there would not be political fighting. Grand Ronde was assigned to the Catholic Church. The Principal Catholic missionary at Grand Ronde Indian Reservation was Father Adrien Croquet of Belgium, who was assigned to the reservation in 1860 and remained until 1896. Croquet set a nearly 40 years record of missionary work at the reservation, and in numerous surrounding communities. He is recorded visiting Catholic communities in Tillamook, the Willamette Valley, and at the Siletz Reservation. But in the 1870s additional priests arrived to serve in St. Michael’s church and the Catholic boarding school on the reservation.

The first contact regarding a Catholic Boarding school at Grand Ronde was in 1862. Rev Brouillet wrote to enquire about this possibility for all reservations assigned to the Catholic Church, which in Oregon was Grand Ronde, Umatilla, and Warm Springs. This proposal was not successful. The Indian Agent at Grand Ronde in the 1860s evidently began a Manual Training school under Protestant or Methodist administration (likely protestant teachers who imposed their own religious teaching), which in 1867 was reported as being unsuccessful. Conditions at this first Manual Training school were very poor within a small dark and dank building, both boys and girls bunking inside and one table for instruction. The report from 1867 suggests that the Indians on the reservation would not send their children to the school willingly, because they were already Catholic converts, and all children sent tot he school became ill and died. But the lack of success of the Protestant Manual Training school, presumedly in the model of the previous Methodist Manual training school in Salem, and the Catholic conversion of the majority of the people at Grand Ronde caused the Oregon Indian Superintendent in the 1870s to accept the proposal to begin a Catholic Boarding School at Grand Ronde.

The original Catholic Boarding school was close to St Michaels church, then later a larger school was built across the street from St. Michael’s Church. The Catholic Boarding school was initially fully funded by the Catholic Church, then later had a small budget of $10,000 from the Federal government to support the salaries of the teachers.

Early St. Michael’s Church photo, Marquette University archives, Grand Ronde has the same photo from another source. this has additional information written on the photo.

The Catholic Church of the United States formally began the Catholic Bureau of Indian Missions in 1884, which was principally concerned with their Indian education missions on reservations.

The Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions is an institution established by the Catholic Church in the third plenary council of Baltimore (1884), and represents the Catholic Indian Missions at the seat of government. it was established as a convenience for the missionaries who are located on the reservations and who would find it inconvenient to come to Washington in person to represent their mission interests…  Further… that when the Government of the United States invited the different religious denominations to cooperate with them in the civilization of the Indian the Catholic Church cheerfully responded to the invitation. (Rev. Father William H. Ketcham  before Committee on Indian Affairs, United States Senate, 1905)

The bureau began acquiring agreements and contracts to offer education at reservations throughout the United States with funding support from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Catholic Church in Oregon took over the mission and education of Catholic students at the Grand Ronde, Warm Springs and Umatilla reservations for much of the last 40 years of the 19th century, from at least 1872.  Female students were made to remain at the boarding school and could not return home except in the summers and during holidays, while male students returned home every day.

In 1862 Brouillet contacted William Rector, Superintendent of the Oregon Superintendency, which included the western part of Washington Territory. Rector was highly skeptical that the Catholic boarding school plan would be successful. His skepticism was likely in part due to the political struggles between the Catholics and Protestants, with the Protestants or Methodists heavily favored by Americans in Oregon. Rector writes,

“I have no confidence in the education of the Indian Children in Oregon. In the first place, the Indians will never consent to have their children removed from them, and to use forcible means would certainly produce trouble. They now complain that we exercise more jurisdiction over them than we ought, or have any right over managing their own affairs in accordance with their own laws and time-honored usages. It requires a great deal of care and close observation to ascertain how far we may safely go in their advancement towards civilization without giving offense and thereby destroying our influence with them. … The price proposed would give the benefit of the school fund to only a small proportion of the children, and leave the great mass wholly unprovided for… it is a great mistake to suppose that a few educated and thoroughly civilized Indians, placed among them that are still enjoying the barbarous and superstitious customs with the hope and expectation that any benefits will result…I have witnessed the result in this country and it has always terminated in the predominance of the savage over the civilized Indian: ho was sure to relapse into the savage state, with all the vices of the white man and none of his virtues…” (Superintendent Rector to Commissioner Dole June 16, 1862)

Rector continues by supporting the Manual Labor School plan by saying that the school has never had suitable buildings and that the system has never been put into “practical operation” suggesting that the commissioner allocate funding and support for the Manual Training School plan. The Manual Labor/training school plan is that first created and implemented by the Methodists missionaries to Oregon in 1832 at Willamette Mission (Superintendent Rector to Commissioner Dole June 16, 1862). But the report from 1867 suggests that the school was never successful, in part because of the issues Rector raises.

There were additional schools, some very poorly attended in the first days of the reservation, most very poorly supported by the federal government even though education and schools were part of the programs promised by at least six ratified treaties. Normally the schools were independently labeled after the treaty which funded them. There was a Molalla school, and an Umpqua School so far that we have found in agent letters. The Rogue River and Chasta treaties education school funding was likely split between Grand Ronde and Siletz because the tribes were split between the two reservations and Siletz Agency had no other funding options.  Education funding guaranteed under treaties ended in 1875. To fill the funding gap and continue the mission of assimilation, the Federal government struggled to find a way to finance education and I am guessing that one way to mitigate the education services was to make a contract with the Catholic Church for education services, much of their education was financed by the church, initially agreed upon simply to gain more access and property on each reservation. This plan worked for a few years, but as the Catholic Church and the various protestant churches kept vigorously lobbying for funding and access to reservations, the politics became acidic. Expenses mounted again and the politics being highly corrosive and a few years later the Federal Government turned away from religious boarding schools on reservations and turned instead to an off-reservation boarding school system. The religious boarding schools continued but they became private and the churches and studnet entrance fees have kept them going.

St. Michael’s Boarding school in 1951, note the school continued likely until sometime after termination in 1956. Marquette University Archives photo from their copy of  a Sentinel newsletter, note the school building behind, only girls stayed at the school, boys would go home everyday

It’s important to point out that the off-reservation boarding school system becomes a reality because of President U.S. Grant’s Peace Policy which included a pathway to citizenship for tribal people who proved to be civilized. Education by the BIA was aimed at making all of the new generations of Natives “civilized” and supposedly immediately eligible for citizenship. By 1875 the Bureau of Indian Affairs began their own secular educational facilities, the Indian boarding school system, really designed to concentrate Native students from many reservations into a few educational facilities and thus save the BIA money. The second such off-reservation boarding school was Chemawa Indian school, initially established as Forest Grove Boarding School in 1875, then in 1880 moved close to Salem, and renamed Chemawa. However, secondarily the off-reservation boarding school system directly addressed the Indian policy of assimilation by removing far away from their home territories and subjecting them to some 18 years of assimilation education to civilize them and make them “Americans.” (Ironically we can ask who is more American than Native peoples who have lived in the continent for more than 10,000 years? The nationalist “American” culture is an imposed culture mainly derived from European cultures.)

Its indeed interesting to note that tribal peoples, even after signing treaties which were ratified by Congress and who had peacefully removed to reservations were still not citizens of the U.S. They were made to remain on the reservations and could not freely travel from the federal reservation lands without approval from Indian agents in the form of passes, which they must carry with them, or be subject to arrest. It seems noteworthy to suggest that if the Americans really wanted assimilation of the tribes, what better way than to bestow citizenship and allow native people to freely seek their fortunes in American society, and then naturally assimilate to the American culture. I guess no one seriously considered this. Americans were so ingrained in racist social evolutionary categories, that they insisted that savage tribal people “civilize” before gaining citizenship, a policy not practiced in this manner on any other immigrant. Immigrants for some time have had to assimilate by going through some education programs, taking citizenship tests, learning the English language but not at all at the extent of Tribal peoples who had to remain on reservations for their lives while they spend decades assimilating through education, adopting farming and ranching pursuits, and converting to some form of Christianity. But even when tribal peoples exhibited all of the requisite characteristics of being “civilized”, ie: educated, Christian, and farmers, and have peacefully, and willingly, and sometimes patriotically committed to becoming Americans, they still were not made citizens en-mass until Congress passed the Native American Citizenship Act in 1924. Some few Natives gained citizenship previously through military service or through renunciation of their Native culture and aided by prominent white citizens in the country. It is also noteworthy to point out that even when tribal people completely assimilated, there was still highly racial treatments of them by white Americans and others, as well as a seeming reversal of the popularity and legitimacy of Native culture which we see now as a more desireable characteristic to the point that non-natives now adopt and steal native cultural identities. It is a hugely ironic saga.

Rev. Brouillet, Marquette University Archives

Rev. Brouillet

In 1879 Abbe Jean-Baptist Brouillet became the director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions (Brown, Selected letters of A.M.A. Blanchet, 228n). Brouillet had been in the Northwest assigned as Vicar-General of the Diocese of Walla Walla for a good number of years, had witnessed the results of the Whitman massacre, building the first Catholic Church in San Francisco, witnessed the Gold Rush, the battle of Walla Walla, the results of battles with the Yakima, and results of Civil War battles (Brown, Selected letters of A.M.A. Blanchet, 162). He had worked in the 1860s to secure boarding school contracts with reservations which had been assigned Catholic missionaries by the U.S. Federal government. In 1862 he secured at least two contracts, one with the Oblates of Puget Sound, the other with the Jesuits of the Rocky Mountains (Brown, Selected letters of A.M.A. Blanchet, 164n). Brouillet in Oregon worked through Archbishop A.M.A. Blanchet of Nisqually (brother of F.N. Blanchet), for supporting many of his education programs. Brouillet was principally in charge of the Catholic Church Education Missions in the 1870s.


The above essay is a beginning, a start to begin to understand the structure of education at Grand Ronde. There are many more details to be uncovered. All errors are my own.

Categories: General History

Tagged as:

Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD

PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.

I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: